The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

October 3, 2008

REVIEW: And that's what you eat when you are dead.*

Ladeeeez and gennelmunnnnn!

Step right up, folks! Peer at the subversive, the insensitive, the unAmerican! Watch the little fictional chilluns as they challenge authority! We got gore, we got cannibalism, we got your ghosties and ghoulies, witches and goblins, we got grown men in their BVDs, and yes, we got your Big Toe, too! For the small cost (free actually) of a library card, you, too, can admire the spectacle of grown-ups freaking out over terrifically fun children's books. Watch the big, smart grown-ups as they run amok, shriek hysterically, drop to the library floor and drum their collective heels in fine tantrums! And all in the name of protecting the wee'uns! Folks, I'll tell ya, censorship has no pride. It's a horrible sight! Horrible! So step right up, ladies and gents, step right up! As promised, two! Count'em! Two! reviews of books that appear in the top ten of the Top 100 Banned / Challenged Books in 2000 - 2007.

For your deee-lectation, allow me to present to you The Adventures of Captain Underpants: An Epic Novel by the one, the only, the wildly wild Dav Pilkey. According to the American Library Association, this morally reprehensible tome was challenged "for insensitivity and being unsuited to age group, as well as encouraging children to disobey authority." Funny though, they didn't mention the part in the story about the adult blackmailing the kids into indentured servitude. As Captain Underpants would say, "tra la laaaa!"

What the book really is, is the story of two highly energetic, wonderfully creative boys, relentless pranksters, who write their own comic books about a superhero called Captain Underpants. In a train of imaginative, if unlikely events, the boys manage to hypnotize their school principal and turn him into their comic book creation, Captain Underpants. Now I admit there is no overriding moral theme to this story. But it was hard to find the book anything but perfect bedtime reading for rascally little boys who would never sit still for the character lessons of 'The Little Engine That Could.' Not only is the story giggle-inducing (or would be if I were still seven years old) but the illustrations are perfectly matched to the story as well as adding fine points to the written word. This book is just good fun for kids, the very thing to encourage the wee bairns to read more.

Now, ladies and gentlemen! Quiet, please! I must have absolute quiet. We are about to pass through the corridor of nightmares. Any sound at all will stir the censors, for they sleep but lightly. Aye, softly then and at the end of this dim hallway where the very walls seem to breathe challenges I will open this door, yes, with this very skeleton key I will unlock the creaky door to a world of -- gasp -- folklore! Horrid, horrid folklore!

Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz, is a perfect gem of a Halloween book. The 'scary stories' are short tales, 2-3 pages each, adapted from lengthier bits of folklore. These are the kinds of stories children love to scare themselves with, whether they are in their own rooms, huddled under a blanket tent with a flashlight and their own imaginations or whether they are cuddled next to Mom and Pop around a campfire, toasting marshmallows and listening to the grown-ups tell tales so horrific that the kids' eyes water from fear. The rugrats also get a brief but interesting lesson in folklore, which the author provides at the close of the stories. The book was challenged because it contains "depictions of cannibalism, murder, witchcraft, and ghosts."

Hey, you got me, it does contain those things...if by "depiction of cannibalism" they are referring to the Big Toe tale, where people find a big toe, eat it (economic crisis, I suppose), and then a ghoulie visits the house looking for his big toe. You know this story, everyone does, or else you know a similar one about a golden arm. And you know you were very young when you first heard the story. Did it ruin your psyche? Give you nightmares? Bah, humbug! Challenging this book was really just about adults who get creeped out easily. Kids have a very high tolerance for the gruesome and grotesque. And author Schwartz actually did a nice job of reducing these old stories down to a child's level of enjoyment without rendering them completely toothless. After all, folk tales usually were created for a purpose, either to comfort or to warn, etc. I had a fine time with this book as it brought back memories of my own childhood friends and swapping ghost stories, the eeriest and most frightening of which were told to me by a grown-up, a shy Cherokee from Oklahoma, name of Bradley.

And best of all, Schwartz reminded me of The Hearse Song,* a mainstay of childish grotesquerie. Yes, indeedy... "The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out..."


  1. Makes me recall the late Paul Newman's unabashed pride in making Nixon's enemy list. Now I can claim for my children that one of favorite series, Captain Underpants, made this particular list. The Scary Stories book sounds perfect for this month and Halloween, too. I'll be picking that one, as well. Good post, Corey.

  2. I really have to start reading more children's books, I guess. There's some fun stuff there! What else would your children recommend?

  3. Corey,

    Your post made me remember the first time I saw Shel Silverstein on the Banned Book List. I'm almost positive it was in regards to the poem where the kid wants to sell his little sister. I try really hard - I swear I do - to understand the logic these people use in justifying challenges, but they really never make ANY sense to me.

    My niece (she's 7) loves to read Sideways Stories from Wayside School...and it's's the same thing...funny stories that engage her. I know she's being raised to think for herself and to make intelligent choices, so if she reads nonsense in a book, she can identify it as such, not mimic it.

    Our focus should be on child-rearing, not on trying to remove books from the libraries!

    Oh, the insanity!

  4. Corey, I just noticed that you have The Big O over in your margin..have you read that yet? I just requested it from the library...I've been reading Declan's blog...and actually just won Ken Bruen's book on his blog...but I'm excited for it to come in; I haven't read his work before, except for his blog. He cracks me up on the blog.

  5. I haven't got a copy of The Big O yet but I've been looking forward to reading it since I saw Bruen mentioned Burke somewhere or other. I try to read or at least sample works by everyone that Bruen recommends or makes note of in his work. I haven't got to all of them, haven't even enjoyed all of the ones I have read, but I've never felt like I wasted my time.

    And so you are getting the new Ken Bruen freebie...and well in advance of the US publication date as well. Ya got a new blog design, another freebie. You're penpals with Alafair Burke... Here's a philosophical question: Can I still respect a person I envy so much? ... Oh, sure, why the heck not?

    Declan Burke's blog is a delight, isn't it? I loved his recent attempt to stir the waters regarding the latest Benjamin Black novel. And I'd love to be a witness at Bouchercon with him, Ken Bruen and Tullamore Dew in the same room.

  6. You're too funny, Corey!

    I won American Skin, not Bruen's new book, which is Once Were Cops, right?. But I'm not picky...;) So, you need not be quite so envious! :)

    The more I hear everyone talking about Bouchercon, the more envious I'M becoming. Maybe one of these years I can go... Indianapolis will be fairly close, so who knows, maybe next year...of course if something doesn't happen with this economy, probably won't happen then either. But regardless I AM doing L.A. in April!!! I can't wait!

    Congrats on the visit from Chercover! Did you see Michael Stanley - actually Stanley - answered your question on my blog about A Carrion Death. I did mean to tell you it is a dark novel; a lot of time my reviews fail to bring that out. I'm very good about emphasizing when a tone is lightened, but not when it's darker.

  7. I did NOT pick up on Michael Stanley's reply, so I need to go over and read that.

    Oh, American Skin, no big deal. I just don't have a copy of that either... (OK, but I did read it, so I feel a leetle bit better.)

    Bouchercon sounds good but as you say, the economy will help make those kinds of decisions.